Thomas Thomas: Building CSR capacity in ASEAN

Singapore Compact is a non-profit organisation founded by the National Tripartite Initiative for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in January 2005, with the National Trade Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation as founder members. As a multi-stakeholder platform, members include large companies as well as SMEs, government agencies, trade unions, institutions and associations, academia and NGOs.

In the interview with Bhavani Prakash, Founder of Green Collar Asia, Mr Thomas Thomas, the Executive Director of Singapore Compact outlines how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should go beyond philanthropy to be embedded within the DNA of an organisation and discusses further on CSR developments in the ASEAN region.

Green Collar Asia: What’s the mission of Singapore Compact?

Thomas Thomas:  It is for Singapore Compact to be a global force for sustainability for global good. By trying to raise awareness for CSR, we help build capacity. We get organisations to share their journeys, because through sharing experiences we can learn from each other.

GCA: Do you think the understanding of CSR is deep enough in Singapore, or is it still fairly superficial?

Thomas Thomas: The understanding of CSR could be better. For various reasons, the understanding of CSR in large section of the population here is that it is about donating money to the community and for charity. Philanthropy does address some issues, but more importantly, it is about the way businesses operate. If they operate in a responsible way, they can contribute to global good and have a positive environmental impact. It is better than addressing the ill effects later.

Let’s say Company X puts chemicals and effluents in the water, and makes downstream communities sick.  By building a hospital for people and saying that it’s doing very well is not CSR. CSR is about cleaning the effluents before they are discharged into the water, so that people don’t get sick in the first place. That’s full responsibility. Unfortunately in society, we are giving a lot of credit for such organisations for building hospitals, but not enough is done to hold companies accountable, for practices that cause problems.

GCA:  Does CSR beg the question then, what is that we are fundamentally producing and delivering? Is that of benefit to society and to the environment? Does that deeper exploration need to happen?

Thomas Thomas:  The way to go about it is to ask, ‘Who are my stakeholders?’  For a company, there are various stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, peers, the government and the community. What are the interests that they have? What impact does the business have on them? Who are the most important stakeholders and how are their expectations addressed? Answering these would address the question, as you would know who is impacted, and what are their expectations are.

GCA: What would you say are the key challenges for leaders and managers to understanding and embedding CSR into the DNA of their organisations?

Thomas Thomas: In many parts of the world, CSR became very important because of huge pressures from societies, as well as failure of businesses to address them. In the UK for example, Margaret Thatcher’s drive for business efficiency resulted in a very individualistic mindset. In fact, she said there is no such thing as society, only individuals.  When intercity riots happened – it was left to businesses in the community to then address the problems and gaps.

Luckily we in Singapore don’t have glaring gaps causing social tension. But still, we are getting more vocal as some in civil society now blame government for everything. The government is not responsible for many of the problems. They are responsible for some of the problems, but not all the problems. Businesses have to act responsibly too as government can’t solve all the problems.

However, just because we have never had big social problems, it does not mean that it may not happen in future. We are seeing widening age and income gaps. History has always said that whenever there are huge disparities in society, it causes tension. And this tension is not good.  These gaps have to be addressed.

GCA: Do you see that businesses are beginning to understand the case for sustainability?

Thomas Thomas:  I think globally, enlightened businesses are already seeing it. The argument could be whether it is mandatory or voluntary. Society makes it mandatory even without the law making it, as it becomes a requirement to be transparent and honest. People who don’t see this are those who haven’t taken out their head from the sand.

If you look at the world as a whole, the recognition of CSR in business is happening in Europe, in Japan and in other places.  Even countries like China with an authoritarian government are beginning to realise the limitations to what government can do. Stock exchanges and investors are already requiring companies to look at sustainability issues. In Singapore there’s a sense of security that businesses have, that no one will challenge. It’s not going to be like that for long.

GCA: Going forward, do you see a rapid shift in regulatory requirements in this region?

Thomas Thomas: For sustainability reporting, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) is encouraging companies to report. For their code of conduct, companies are asked to comply or explain why they are not. This is a global trend.  In order to report, you have to do something, you have to do the right things. If you don’t report, it means you’re not doing anything, so there is pressure to do something.

What is also interesting is that SGX came out with their guidelines in 2011. The recent SGX- KPMG survey says there’s not so much improvement in companies reporting, so the pressure is not on yet for the average company in Singapore.

GCA: What are you trying to do regionally, especially as Singapore Compact is host to the regional networking platform, the ASEAN CSR Network, formed in 2011?

Thomas Thomas: Many other ASEAN countries are really ahead of Singapore in some areas. If you look at reporting, Malaysia was doing it much before us. If you look at civil society in Thailand or in the Philippines, they are advanced in many areas.  Throughout ASEAN, we have governments which are in place not through people’s choice, or there are societies which are democratic as well as those in between. So ASEAN is not uniformly the same, but in all societies, people are speaking our more and more that they want accountability for which businesses have to change.

The mega trend for ASEAN countries is that even though countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have experienced high growth, people are slowly realising that it has not yet translated to a better life for most of the people in these countries. The growth is being captured by top corporations and is not in line with ASEAN government commitment to inclusive and sustainable growth. Governments are trying to catch up in terms of their understanding of sustainability and CSR, so they are looking at it, and so is civil society. It is really up to the business community to show how quickly they can respond to these challenges.

For some issues, traditional responsibility was placed on government, now this is slowly shifting to businesses.  Ten years ago, if you talked about human rights and corruption, people would have said that it was basically the government’s job. Now businesses are being held equally accountable. Governments would not be corrupt if businesses were not paying for this.

Some of the worst human rights abuses are happening in extractive industries where there is social media pressure. Any misstep by business can be magnified.

– Jerry Bernas, Programme Director, ASEAN CSR NETWORK (who was present at the interview)

So we want development that benefits people and the environment. We should have not just GDP growth, but that will actually mean that the average guy benefits, everyone moves up in terms of wellbeing.

GCA:  For a company which is yet to start on the CSR journey, or which has a small CSR initiative, where should it start?

Thomas Thomas: I’d say, start anywhere. The important thing is to start. Traditionally, it used to be a tradeoff between safety and production, companies would compromise safety to get more production. Now there is no choice between safety and production- it has to be safe production. Everyone has to go home the same way they came to work. Businesses should expect the responsibility to send workers home in one piece.

Either operate responsible or don’t operate, for it’s about the licence to operate – either by law or from the community. If there is no licence, business is out.

GCA: What advice would you give to professionals coming into this sector?

Thomas Thomas: There is no real academic qualification to train you for this. It is your passion and personal value system that’s most important. Then bring in your educational skills to this. Along the way, Singapore Compact is also trying to build up capacity so professionals can understand issues, options and how CSR can be incorporated successfully.

Green Collar Asia is proud to be an official media partner for the upcoming International Singapore Compact CSR Summit 2013 on 4th-5th September, 2013.

Visit the website for more details.


About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals and entrepreneurs are brought together.  Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a media, recruitment and training firm.

Bhavani is a speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA (PGDM)  from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.  Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at] or through LinkedIn.

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